security clearance hangover

Trump may revoke security clearance of officials from former administrations:
Why did they keep the security clearances after leaving the jobs that justified them? How did they access classified info? Are they walking into the building they used to work in and looking at files?

It says in the article…

“Former U.S. intelligence officials are known to keep their security clearances so current officials can consult them.”

So, this would have no effect on the former officials except giving them another reason to hang up the phone when Bolton calls crying at 3 AM that everything’s broken.

McCabe and Comey’s clearances were revoked when they left the FBI, per standard policy.

But ”how am I supposed to live without you?”

Many former intelligence, military, and law enforcement officials go on to serve in consultancy to government contractors, policy think tanks, and non-governmental organizations which will sponsor and maintain their security clearances, as well as consulting back to their former organizations who make hire them through a contractor or bring them back as a “casual” on-call employee; if they are not so sponsored, the clearance is deactivated but can be reactivated with relative easy provided the clearance is still within its review period. Regardless of the state of the clearance, anyone who has previously held a security clearance is required to protect any classified information for life, e.g. not release or confirm secure and classified information without approval from the classifying authority. There is no ‘right’ to hold a security clearance and it can be revoked even without specific infractions if the clearance sponsor or controlling agency determines that the clearance holder no longer needs or should have a clearance. Nor can someone just “[walk] into the building they used to work in and [look] at files.” Even with the appropriate clearance level, you have to have a legitimate need to access classified materials, which are generally secured by an individual responsible party in a safe, Secure Controlled Information Facility (SCIF), or on a secured computing system with controlled user access. Without having information under your control, you have to gain the explicit permission by individual document owners or the Information Systems Security Manager (ISSM) to actually access classified information.

Without any particular cause other than disagreeing with their publically stated views on the current administration, ordering the clearances to be revoked appears capricious and vindictive, but within the authority of the chief executive. It won’t have any effect on their ability to offer negative opinions about the current administration or the President in regard to non-classified information or activities, so it doesn’t restrict their First Amendment rights or otherwise limit any Constitutionally-protected actions, and I doubt they could pursue any remedy in the courts unless they can demonstrate that their is some specific offense or conspiracy related to revoking the clearances, and even then I suspect legal action could be tied up indefinitely simply by arguing the necessity of national security and the prerogative of the executive in determining who has a need for access to classified material. Every Department (Defense, Justice, Energy, State, et cetera) issues its own security clearances and has its own policies about retaining clearances after employment, so the DoJ revoking the clearances of FBI agents does not mean that State Department, DOJ, or DOE has to follow the same policies.

Anyone can, of course, make a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) about any data product or document produced by or for any branch or agency of the federal government, and the responsible agency has to respond by either providing the specified information (in full or redacted form) or giving reason why it cannot (classified, contains personally identifable information, et cetera). There are exceptions for “ongoing” classified programs for which providing even a confirmation of the existence would compromise operational security (the so-called “Glomar denial” after the CIA’s refusal to confirm or deny the true purpose of the Glomar Explorer and Project Azorian) and there is little external accountability for a refusal to provide full information short of suing the pertinent agency, hence why the Department of the Interior is refusing to release complete calendar information on Ryan Zinke’s meetings. The former government officials whose clearances are revoked can still make FOIA requests about information of which they are aware, and dispose the degree of redaction or claims that the information is still operationally sensitive.


I had to get a background check done to volunteer at my kids’ school. The background check is good for 3 years. If I decide to only volunteer for 1 year, they don’t go out of their way to revoke the background check, that doesn’t make any sense. But having a background check on file doesn’t mean I can go wander around the school whenever I want, I still have to have a valid reason to be there.

That’s how it works in the security clearance world. You need a clearance (which is just a fancy background check), a mission requirement (need to know), and a signed NDA. Once your mission ends, they don’t go out of their way to revoke the clearance as a standard protocol, it just stays on file until it expires.

If any of the people in question had their clearances renewed after they left their respective offices, then they had to have been sponsored by someone with a valid mission requirement, which means they’re still serving their country.

And their background hasn’t changed when they left their job. So if they were trustworthy then, they still are now.

If they are no longer trustworthy because they see the new leaders doing things that are unconstitutional, or just stupid, they may speak out on that. And it seems likely that this is what the worry is about.

They can’t be trustworthy, they dared to criticize the Orange Fuehrer

Quite true, but we aren’t supposed to say such things in GQ.

Whoops. Didn’t see where we were. I apologize.

What I was told when I left the military was that my security clearance remained, but all my access privileges were revoked … if I got another job that needed a clearance, I would only have to go through my background from when I left the military until the time I got the job …

This actually came up when the guy I was working for bid a job pulling phone cable at a chemical weapons depot … that I had a TS was a big point in our favor … alas, the bid was won by another company so I never got to test this … but the Army checked an did confirm my clearance was intact … just needed to go over the ten years since I was discharged …

No. A SCIF is a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility”. Noncompartmented information isn’t stored or accessed in a SCIF, just in a secure area. I’ve stored classified information in my office that I shared with an uncleared person (no, I didn’t read it while he was in the office, and yes, it was stored in an approved safe). But SCI has to be stored and ‘used’ in a SCIF, which may (and probably does) have offices.

When I retired from the military, I had two years to get a job that required a clearance, or my “inactive” clearance would be removed and I would have to start from scratch again with a whole new background check. Luckily I found a job that needed a clearance within those two years, and it was easy to reactivate my clearance.

Should someone take a job where they need clearance (i.e. Defence Contractor) to what extend would their political views affect their application? (Assuming they aren’t far off the mainstream? Obviously a raving anarchist or conspiracy nut would have problems…)

Hardly at all. Primary concerns are foreign contacts, financial solvency, and susceptibility to blackmail. As long as you’re not going around saying you want to bring down the US government, politics don’t matter.

I want to add two things I don’t see mentioned, although they are fairly widely known.

First, access to all classified information is on a need-to-know basis, regardless of your clearance. I once held a Secret clearance (a pretty lightweight clearance but the same rules apply to all levels) in connection with work at NASA related to the military. However, I could not walk the halls in the Pentagon freely able to pull any file marked “Secret.” These people retain their clearances so that if consulted, the person consulting them is free to provide whatever classified information is necessary to perform the consultation, not so they can read anything they want at a moment’s whim.

Second, your clearance is generally put on ice when you are no longer in a job requiring it. (You must also be in a job requiring it to apply in the first place and working for a certified organization; you cannot, as a private individual, apply to the U.S. government for a security clearance, as if you were applying for a passport.) I believe it can be reactivated more easily than a new clearance can be granted, but what happened to Comey and McCabe at the FBI is SOP across the government.

Certainly once upon a time but under the current regime, if you haven’t signed a loyalty oath or shown other evidence of absolute loyalty to Donny Two-scoops, I would count on that no longer.

This being GQ, I’ve seen no evidence of that outside of the handful of people named in the recent news.

It seems that under EO 13526 the “need to know” requirement can be waived for people who have “previously have occupied senior policy-making positions to which they were appointed or designated by the President or the Vice President.” This is supposed to be limited to “tems that the person originated, reviewed, signed, or received while serving” in that position.

But, according to this article (which is opinionated, but seems non-partisan and balanced), former directors of National Intelligence and the CIA get daily access to intelligence materials. Presumably this includes Brennan, Clapper and Hayden.

Many private sector jobs in Washington, require someone with certain levels of security clearance, i.e. their employer most likely are government contractors handling sensitive information, etc. Without the required security clearance, you no longer have a job.

This is Trump thumbing his nose at certain former members of previous administrations, which may result in them losing their cushy private sector positions.

I was a bit surprised to discover that the courts apparently agree, treating security clearance as a matter within the scope of the executive’s foreign policy and national security power.

Other cases have extended this rule to positions outside the military which require clearance.